The Three Gorges Dam, Why China is Run by Engineers

Perhaps the largest single engineering project of the 20th century was the Three Gorges Dam in China. Standing nearly 600 feet tall, and 2.3 kilometers in length, the Three Gorges Dam is the single largest dam ever constructed, holding a reservoir that stretches for 660 kilometers. Standing at the base of the dam, it feels less like a man-made wall and more like a mountain that extends two football fields into the air.

Officially, the dam has a capacity of 22,500 MW, equivalent to the power generated by nearly 25 large coal power plants. This capacity is enough to supply 3% of the power in China. Assuming a lifespan of 75 years, the coal emissions displaced by the dam over this period will prevent over 1.2 million people from dying from air pollution, a truly staggering figure. Additionally, the dam will provide significant ability to prevent the massive flooding that has ravaged the communities around the Yangtze river. This feature alone could potentially save millions of lives from perishing during massive flooding.

The Three Gorges has both been characterized as the largest dam in the world as well as the most controversial. 1.3 million people living in 13 cities, 140 towns and 1,350 villages have been displaced by the filling of the reservoir. While replacement housing and land has been promised by the Chinese government, complaints have been made that the money for displaced previous property has been insufficient to afford the replacement housing. In the process of these hundreds of towns and villages being submerged, hundreds of archaeological sites were lost to the waters. Ancient temples and other landmarks have been lost forever.

The story of the Three Gorges Project began in 1919 when Sun Yat-Sen mentioned the possibility of a series of dams or a massive project on the Yangtze river with the purpose of flood control and electricity generation. Over the next twenty years, several studies were undertaken to study the potential of such a project, including one conducted by American dam expert J.L. Savage in 1944. During the second world war, the idea gained momentum, and the US Bureau of Reclamation was contracted to design a large dam for the river, however a deep economic crisis and the upsurge of the Chinese civil war lead to the project’s abandonment in 1947.

With the rise of the Communist party and the floods of 1949 that killed 5700 people, a renewed focus on controlling the Yangtze took focus. It was Mao himself that suggested that a dam be constructed in 1953. One year later, planning activities began with the collaboration of Soviet experts, and the establishing of the Yangtze Valley Planning Office in 1956 to conduct specific design and feasibility studies for the Three Gorges Project. However, no construction began for several decades.

The actual design and construction of the project began in 1986 when the Chinese Ministry of Water Resources and Electric Power asked the Canadian government to finance a feasibility study that would be performed by a consortium of Canadian firms. The consortium, known as CIPM Yangtze Joint Venture, included three private companies (Acres International, SNC, and Lavelin International), and two state-owned utilities (Hydro-Quebec International and British Columbia Hydro International). On April 3, 1994, a full 75 years after it was first proposed, the construction of the dam was approved by the National People’s Congress. About 15 years later, the construction project officially came to a close.

The amount of material used in the building of the Three Gorges Project is staggering. Consuming 28 million cubic meters of concrete, the Three Gorges Dam used as over 8 times as much concrete as the Hoover Dam or nearly 600 Empire State Buildings. The amount of concrete used could build a two-direction 4 lane highway that stretches nearly 2000 miles long. The earth excavated could fill over 41,000 Olympic-Size swimming pools. Each of the 26 turbines could supply as much power as a small nuclear power plant (such as Vermont Yankee). To call the Three Gorges Dam a feat of engineering would be an understatement.

Perhaps because of the significance of the project, the Three Gorges has taken on several different symbolic meanings. For some, it is a symbol of the destructive power that man can have both on the environment and on itself. The environmental consequences far outweigh any potential benefits that could come out of the project. Most interestingly, the dam is a symbol of state planning as it is the last of the great projects, comparable in size only to that of the Great Wall itself. Truly, the Three Gorges is a giga-project, but the idea that the dam is significant to the very government structure is an interesting thought. What does the building of the Three Gorges reveal about the way China is run politically?

One of the interesting observations that one can make about the government of the US compared to that of the Chinese government is that the US is run by lawyers while China is run by engineers. The Politburo, the highest political power in China, has historically been dominated by engineers. Of the 9 members of the 17th Politburo of the Communist Party, 8 of them held degrees in engineering. In a study conducted during the late 1990s by Li Cheng titled “Elite Transformation and Modern Change in Mainland China and Taiwan: Empirical Data and the Theory of Technocracy”, the results concluded that more than 80% of the major leaders (mayors of large cities, Party leaders, Central Committee members) held degrees in engineering or the sciences.

China has a strongly engrained notion that a knowledgeable elite should run the government, and as a result, a technocracy was a natural fit for this political culture. In the early 1980s, a major transformation took place within the Chinese government in which the majority of Mao Zedong’s political generation (dominated by soldiers, peasants, and the worker-class) was ousted under Deng Xiaoping and replaced by a generation of younger highly-educated leaders.

The majority of this incoming generation of leadership had an educational background in the sciences and engineering. This transformation was closely modeled off of the one Singapore used (and to a lesser extent South Korea and Malaysia), which had proved to be highly successful in stimulating national growth. Many of China’s intellectuals embraced the idea of establishing a technocracy, one of whom was Qian Xuesen, an MIT-educated rocket scientist who would head up the Chinese rocketry program. Xuesen is even quoted as saying that governments should be run like an engineering department. The notion that economic, social and even political problems could be approached with an engineer’s problem solving mentality seemed to resonate with China and was largely unchallenged.

This transformation into a technocratic government marked a turning point for the nation that previously had been gripped by poverty. The successful reforms that Deng launched during this period are ultimately the stepping stone to the unprecedented growth rates that China has experienced in the ensuing decades. Today, China’s GDP per capita is over $6800 compared to $193 in 1980.

The Three Gorges dam was a direct product of the political transformation that occurred during the 1980s. The timing of the 1986 feasibility study and design is closely linked to the reforms of the decade. Additionally, the construction took place as China’s technocracy was on the rise. It was during the construction that the Li Cheng study took place, and 80% of the country’s major leadership roles were controlled by engineers and scientists.

Even beyond this, the Three Gorges Dam project was one that could only be taken on by a state-run entity because of its size and capital intensity. Arguably, no corporation outside of a few major oil companies could support the $27.2 billion project (however some sources speculate that the cost may have been twice this figure). Few investors would have the nerve to undertake such a massive project with a multi-decade timeline.

The dominance of engineers in the Politburo has decreased in recent years. Among the 18 members of the 18th Politburo, only four are engineers and one holds a degree in mathematics. Six others hold degrees in economics, two in international relations, two in Chinese literature, one in political science and another in history. This diverse set of leaders reflects the increasingly variable set of challenges that accompany leading a complex society and economy. In the past, the focus has been placed on high-speed economic growth and development of technology. The 18th Politburo came into office in 2012, and in 2011, China’s 12th 5-Year Plan was published. This plan “emphasizes ‘higher quality growth’” that addresses questions about sustainability and social equality.

All of these factors have large implications for the coming decades of China’s growth as a nation. The Three Gorges Dam provides evidence of China’s ability to take on large scale projects successfully. It wasn’t the only successful project of similar scale. China’s high speed railway system recently was completed, and the line between Beijing and Shanghai alone cost $32 billion. The 820 mile stretch can be covered in just 288 minutes.

The nation’s highway system has also significantly developed in the past several decades since it was first conceived. With the first mile being laid in 1988, China’s National Trunk Highway system has grown to stretch a total of nearly 70,000 miles. Simply put. when China throws itself into completing a project, it will complete it. With sustainability now becoming a national priority, China is placing a significant amount of resources in developing its nuclear, wind, and solar energy portfolios.

Currently, China has 24 nuclear reactors in operation and 25 under construction. Dozens of others are about to start construction. The current plan is to have 58 GW of capacity installed by 2020, some 150 GW by 2030 and significantly more by 2050. It’s very likely that China will surpass the United States as the largest producer of nuclear energy within two decades. The fact that the accident at Fukushima did little to slow the growth of this portfolio says that the nation is has made these goals a significant priority. China would not be saying it would have 150 GW of nuclear capacity by 2030 if it didn’t intend on seriously pursuing the goal.

A further trend that has emerged is that China is focused on exporting its technical knowledge not only in the nuclear sphere but also the hydroelectric sector. With the successful completion of the Three Gorges Dam, China is now exporting turbines and generators to other developing nations as they build up their own hydroelectric portfolios. It is safe to assume that once China is comfortable with its ability to build a nuclear fleet, it will do the same with the nuclear components and technology they develop.

All of these factors ultimately mean that China is going to be a dominant economy moving into the coming decades. In the past decades, thanks to its technocratic political system, it has developed the proven capability to take on massive infrastructure and energy projects. This ability has helped to drive China’s unprecedented economic growth over the past three decades.

Works Consulted:

“China’s 12th Five-Year Plan: Overview”, KPMG, Web. 2011
“Faster than a Speeding Bullet”, The Economist, Web. November 9, 2011
Miller, Alice, “The New Party Politburo Leadership”, China Leadership Monitor. Web
“Minds Like Machines” The Economist, Web. November 19, 2011
“Nuclear Power in China”, World Nuclear Association, Web. March, 2015
“The Technocratic Trend and Its Implications in China” Observa, Web. July 11, 2007

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